A law that saved America's fisheries from ruin gets gutted

By Austin Price

August 20, 2018


Photo by Atese | iStock

By the 1970s, red snappers in the Gulf of Mexico had been all but exterminated by decades of overfishing. Then, in 1976, Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Act, a fisheries management bill sponsored by Ted Stevens, a Republican senator from Alaska, and Warren G. Magnuson, a Democratic senator from Washington. The following year, red snappers were declared overfished and a catch quota was established for the gulf.

Since then, the red snapper has bounced back from 3 percent of its historic respawn rate to nearly 20 percent. The average size of a red snapper has doubled in the last decade. “The law stepped in, fishermen had to take the medicine,” said Eric Blazer, deputy director for the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance. Blazer, who grew up working as a deckhand on his father’s commercial lobster boat in the Gulf of Maine, has seen firsthand the dangers of unregulated overfishing. “Now there’s more red snapper in the gulf than most of these fishermen remember in their entire lives.”

But the recovery story doesn’t end there. In July, the House voted and passed H.R. 200, a bill introduced by Don Young of Alaska that reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Young labeled H.R 200 the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act” but weakened Magnuson-Stevens in the process. To Eric Blazer, H.R. 200 is neglecting long-term sustainability for short-term economic benefit. “Flexibility really means unsustainability,” he said. "At the end of the day, we’re gonna be back here in 10 years talking about how the red snapper population crashed for the second time.”

Before the Magnuson-Stevens Act, coastal waters were rampant with unregulated fishing fleets, both foreign and domestic. Some of New England’s best-known fisheries—flounder and codfish, among others—had collapsed.

Magnuson-Stevens set up the boundaries of our federal waters and divided the coast into regional management districts. From then on, eight Regional Fishery Management Councils, composed of representatives from the commercial and recreational fishing sectors and state and federal agencies, drew up fishery management plans and rules and then submitted them to NOAA and the Department of Commerce to be reviewed and finalized.

The system wasn’t perfect. The regional council system allowed a bottom-up approach where local stakeholders could be a part of management decisions, but it also lacked the teeth to insulate these councils from local economic pressure to catch more fish in the short term. “You can imagine that there’s a fair amount of local politics and local pressure that happens at the council level,” said Regan Nelson, an environmental consultant and former senior advocate for the oceans program of the National Resources Defence Council. Throughout the 1980s, several fisheries throughout the country continued toward collapse.

So in 1996, Congress beefed up the Magnuson-Stevens Act. It required those regional councils to develop rebuilding plans for overfished stocks—plans that would have to be accomplished in 10 years or less in order to stay in compliance with the law. It contained an exemption to the 10-year rule if a fishery needed longer time to recover for biological reasons. For instance, the red snapper is currently on a 27-year rebuilding plan because healthy respawn levels in snapper populations require larger, older fish. Red snappers don’t produce a large number of eggs until they are at least eight years old.

A 2006 update mandated science-based annual catch limits for every managed fishery, to be assessed and delegated by science and statistical committees in each regional council. These catch limits added a measure of accountability to managing how many fish came out of each stock in a year. Overages would come out of next year’s harvest, or seasons would be cut short if fishermen reached their limit early.

“Those two major changes that were made in 1996 and 2006 were really the reason the Magnuson-Stevens Act has been so successful in getting fisheries back to a sustainable level,” said Nelson.

The latest status of the stocks report shows that since 2000, 44 previously overfished stocks have recovered, which means that these fisheries have been removed from the overfished list and have reached an annual spawning rate that surpasses the amount fishermen harvest each year. The overfished list has dropped to an all-time low.

But supporters of H.R. 200 argued that Magnuson-Stevens was inflexible and impeded economic growth. The new law will exempt more fish populations from annual catch limits, says Nelson, and remove the 10-year deadline on stock rebuilding plans. The science-based conservation values of fisheries management will once again be vulnerable to political and economical factors.

H.R. 200 will affect fisheries in all eight regional councils, but the Gulf of Mexico has been the front line of much of the recent debate around this legislation because of preexisting conflict that has pitted federal regulators against state officials, recreational fishermen against commercial, and sports anglers against environmentalists.

Today, the red snapper is near the halfway point of a 27-year rebuilding plan. Half of the annual catch limit goes to commercial fishing—each fishermen is given a certain percentage of the overall quota, which, as a whole, they’ve held to.

But the recreational fishing sector, which is allotted the other half of the catch limit, has blown past its annual quota almost every year. While for-hire recreational fishing vessels follow an allocation system similar to commercial vessels, the same can’t be said about individual fishermen, which Blazer describes as “an unlimited population of anglers.”

These private anglers fish in both state and federal waters, though the same population of red snapper swims beneath the surface. When setting science-based annual catch limits, the gulf council’s science and statistical committee takes into account that most—sometimes over 80 percent—of the recreational quota will be caught in state waters, particularly where some states, such as Texas, have state-water seasons that last year-round. They also figure that private anglers may be bringing in fish more efficiently than before, with improved fishing technology over the years. But so far, it’s impossible to know for sure. “You can’t have a sustainable fishery without knowing how many fishermen there are and how many fish they’re catching,” Blazer said.

But these estimates have led the gulf council to shorten the federal recreational season each year, even though the red snapper is recovering. In 2017, the gulf council announced the shortest federal snapper season to date at three days. The short season frustrated recreational fishing lobby groups like the American Sportfishing Association and the Coastal Conservation Association as well as a group of Gulf Coast lawmakers led by Republican Steve Scalise, who urged Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to intervene.

Ross extended the Gulf Coast snapper season to 42 days. Internal memos between Ross and one of his advisors, Earl Comstock, revealed that Ross made this decision with the full understanding that his extension would set the 27-year rebuilding plan back another six years. Comstock also told Ross that under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the court wouldn’t be able to act on Ross’s extension until after the lengthened season had already ended. So when Ocean Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, and Earthjustice sued the Department of Commerce for violating the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the extended snapper season continued throughout litigation.

In the meantime, representatives in Congress moved to further weaken Magnuson-Stevens. In December 2017, Republican Garrett Graves of Louisiana sponsored the Modern Fish Act and the Red Snapper Act of 2017, which would grant more regulating power to the states in federal waters. In a press release, Graves used language that echoed recent proposals by the Interior Department to weaken the Endangered Species Act. These bills did not pass the House, but Graves brought these amendments to H.R. 200, which he later went on to cosponsor.

“Healthy fish populations aren’t just good for the ecosystem,” said Meredith Moore, director of the Fish Conservation Program at the Ocean Conservancy. “Fishermen, both commercial and recreational, benefit most when there are sustainable fish populations in the water to catch.” Moore isn’t alone in saying this. Hundreds of organizations, fishermen coalitions, businesses, scientists, and conservationists representing fisheries on all three American coasts have publicly opposed H.R. 200. They continue to draft letters to Congress while shifting their attention to the Senate, where they hope to see this legislation halted.

“In the simplest terms, it’s a bad bill,” said Blazer. “It’s bad for fish. It’s bad for commercial fishermen. It’s even bad for recreational fishermen in the long term. Politics and fisheries don’t mix. But in this case, we see politics driving the boat on this.”